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Aaron Muderick is the CEO of the global, multimillion-dollar business Crazy Aaron’s Smart Putty. Full disclosure: I have invested several hundred dollars in his company, in the form of buying far too many tins of the product than is healthy. But when you get your hands on it, you’ll see why it’s one of the world’s coolest office toys.
The reason I wanted to interview Muderick for this column on high-character leadership is because of his commitment to hiring persons with disabilities. Muderick hires 800 people with intellectual and physical disabilities to assist with production and distribution. That’s in addition to 75 employees who work in other capacities for the company.
Earlier this month, Muderick was elected president of the Toy Association. He told me about how hiring disabled people benefits everyone and the business itself.
Bruce Weinstein: Did you ever see the third Dirty Harry movie, The Enforcer, from 1976? At the beginning of the story, Detective Harry Callaghan becomes apoplectic when he learns that the Mayor of San Francisco “intends to broaden the areas of participation for women in the police force.” He sneers that the new hiring policy is merely “stylish.” How do you respond to the criticism that hiring disabled people is a form of being “stylish”?
Aaron Muderick: It’s not stylish. What brings value to me as an employer, for someone on my assembly line? When you’re doing repetitive, rote work but every piece is important, the challenge for workers is not becoming bored. And if it is at the limit of your ability to be in that job doing that role, and you find it challenging, then you are in that flow state where you are paying attention all of the time. You are into it, and it’s important to you.
But that’s just one kind of job where people with disabilities can shine. We work with different agencies, and each agency has their specialty in placing the right person in the right position.
Weinstein: What would you say to other CEOs who say, for whatever reason, “It’s just not for me”?
Muderick: There are some companies that don’t want to be deeply involved all the way down their supply chain, because asking too many questions will bring difficult answers.
I wanted to build a company that was more vertically integrated, where we had many different layers of supply chain and production under our roof. For CEOs who don’t want to hire disabled people who might benefit their companies, I would ask, “What’s your goal? Is your goal long-term profitability and success and knowing that your product is made with a moral compass? That you’re not going to have a surprise news article about how one of your outsourced factories was doing something bad?”
You’d better be asking those questions, and you
better be looking all the way down.
Weinstein: What is another benefit of hiring disabled workers?
Muderick: People with disabilities don’t have as many choices and options as others do. When you give them an opportunity, they really appreciate it, and that comes back in terms of loyalty and attention. Rather than spending a lot of money dealing with turnover and constantly hiring and training, you get a workforce that’s going to come in and stay and do a better job every day than the last one. Then in 20 years you’ll be able to spend your time kind of growing the top, rather than constantly policing and battling the bottom.
Weinstein: What about prejudice among some of the staff toward people with disabilities?
Muderick: It exists. As a growing company, we’ve learned how to work with individuals and make sure that they’re going to be comfortable with the culture. Some employees might not like, for example, getting an overly-enthusiastic hug from a person with an intellectual disability.
Weinstein: Can you talk about the distinction between intellectual and physical disabilities?
Muderick: Sure. There are intellectual disabilities where for whatever reason someone might seem “slow,” in the vernacular. They might not read human emotions correctly. So they might be a math whiz, but on the people side, they seem a little robotic.
Physical disability is someone who has limited mobility in an arm or someone who’s in a wheelchair. Someone who seems perfectly normal but drops into seizures randomly every 10 to 20 minutes, and it might last 30 seconds or 60 seconds.
Weinstein: You’ve hired people like that?
Muderick: We do, in our work centers. Someone who is severely physically disabled can’t come into our facility on an automated assembly line. But in a structured setting with a nurse nearby and trained staff, that person can sit at a table and they can do manual piecework.
Weinstein: So they’re off-site.
Muderick: They’re off-site. They’re doing our product assembly. We do basic manufacturing, and then the putty and the cans and the stickers and the boxes go out weekly. Workers come with a truck, pick up the boxes, go to the facility, do all of the work and then return the finished product. It’s just an endless loop week after week.
Weinstein: Let’s look at that term, “disability.” I’ve heard, in an attempt to minimize the sting of being disabled, people use phrases like “differently abled.” What’s your take on that?
Muderick: Sometimes I feel like it’s politically correct, but I do understand that people who have endured a lifetime of pain and stigma would probably like to choose a different word.
There’s one gentleman, Justin, who works out of a vocational facility. He’s been with us for many, many years. He works on our product every single day. He puts labels on cans, and he has autism. Is he able to have an apartment by himself, transport himself, manage his finances? No. He has a disability. He cannot do those things on his own. Can he apply stickers straight, by hand, faster than any human being I have ever seen? Yes, he can. He can do it faster than me, and I’ve been doing it for 20 years. He can do it faster than you after years of practice.
The work that Justin does typically is putting stickers on. In that narrow domain, he doesn’t have a disability. He has a super-ability.
But in all these other areas, he absolutely has a disability. So my answer is, “It’s complicated.” And it’s even more complicated because you can ask a person with blindness, “How would you like me to refer to you?”
Muderick: But for someone like Justin, he doesn’t have that part of his brain kind of thinking about that. It’s hard to ask. And so someone else has to make it up.
Weinstein: What he does could be automated, but you choose not to do so. Why?
Muderick: When we started, I did everything by hand. Then we started integrating machinery and tooling into our facilities to be able to produce the product. The vast majority of the work is still done by hand.
As we grew, it didn’t make sense to me to say, “Thank you to all of my customers who have supported all of our workers with disabilities. Thank you to all of these individuals who have gotten us to be a successful global brand. We are replacing you all with a machine.”
Weinstein: So you do use automation, but selectively.
Muderick: Yes. But as we’ve continued to build out our automation, we’re aware that we’re also building a brand. On every can it says that we work as a team with individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities to develop economic self-sufficiency.
You like the product. The product is fun. You use it because it’s great. But also there’s something more. That’s what our brand is.
Weinstein: Were social justice issues were a part of your family culture or discussions?
Muderick: I grew up in a fairly religious Conservative Jewish household. One of the most basic ideas in Jewish theology is Tikkun Olam, which means the world is broken and it’s our job to fix it. We fell from grace. We fell out of the Garden of Eden. The world is broken, and if you’re not willing to try and make it better, then it’s just going to stay broken.
Weinstein: Last question. In 50 words or less, why should readers actively seek to hire people with disabilities?
Muderick: As with any kind of diversity, individuals with disabilities bring a unique perspective on the world. It can add to your workplace in ways that you cannot predict or anticipate.
This interview was edited and condensed.
March 1, 2019 at 08:56AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs